Tuesday, March 24, 2015
The Jack Kerouac Project sponsors resident authors every few months at the Kerouac House in College Park. Jack Kerouac was living in the back rooms of this house with his mother when he got the news that his novel, "On the Road" was being published. He also wrote "The Dharma Bums" while living here. Ciara Shuttleworth is now the resident author. I first met her at a potluck dinner held in her honor. I have to confess that I knew nothing about her writing before going to the potluck. She read a poem before we all dug into the fried chicken and healthy salads arranged in the dining room. The poem was the first she had written after moving into the home. It left a strong impression, the lonely sound of a train's horn and the beauty found in wreckage, and then the wine and conversations flowed.
Ciara Shuttleworth was born in San Francisco and grew up in Nebraska, Nevada, and Washington state. Talking to her on the front porch, I learned that she had been struck by a car while training for a marathon. She showed me the scar on her ankle. She was told she couldn't run again, but she didn't accept that, and she began to run despite the pain. She fought her way back to an active lifestyle and she gets up each morning at 6am so she can run before the Florida heat sets in. She said her thoughts flow when she runs.
Ciara was a visual artist before she realized she had to write poetry full time. She showed me the stark black and white portraits she used to do by letting me flip through the images on her phone. Her father is a well known poet but she has struck out early in her career to make a name for herself. One poem, "Sestina" was written in an inspired moment in college in reply to a professor introducing the class to the poetic form. The poem uses so few words to express loss and sadness. Several composers have taken this lean, succinct poem and set it to music. She sent it to the New Yorker on a whim and her submission was accepted.
I arrived after fighting traffic that caused me to miss a turn and causing me to make an illegal U-turn to avoid a blinking train crossing. She welcomed me on the front porch and then set to work in the back room of the Kerouac House. The ceiling in this room slants down at a sharp angle and it almost touched my head causing me to hunker down a bit. She was refining a poem she was working on. She described her process briefly. She tends to write her poems in a Moleskin notebook when the idea is fresh and raw. These moments are very private and emotional. She then goes back through the notebook and begins to mine for ideas and thoughts that go into the final poem. The original hand written poems are like the sketch and when she types it into the Macbook Pro laptop computer, that is when things get serious. The screen saver showed a view of a California beach. The same image was tacked to the writing studio wall. She put it there because there was already a tack in the wall. It would be a shame to waste it.
She paused for a long delicious moment gazing out the back window at the bright green foliage. In the poem she was working on, a cormorant flashed its black wings against the intense sun which is too bright to look at directly. Her poem was full of vibrant imagery that could leave you wanting to laugh with delight and cry at the same time. Clearly her years as a painter had helped her as she related sights and emotions with brevity. There is a weightless quality to he words, like flight is the natural order of the world. While smoking outside a bar in NYC's Hell's Kitchen with a friend, she saw an intoxicated boy making a futile pass at a girl. That moment became art. One poem she was working on, she ripped up into tiny pieces and threw it away in the other room. "It was getting too preachy" she explained. Once that happens it is best to let go and start over. This wasn't a loss but rather a victory since she got it out of her system. "Yes, good poems are hard to write. Someone close to me said he has written more mediocre poems than anyone else ever, which ultimately doesn't matter since he's also written some good ones." she later told me. What is important is the habit and joy in creating.
Ciara took a break when her poem was done and I had placed my last wash on the sketch. Since she was also a visual artist, I was a bit reluctant to show the sketch which is by definition never quite finished. She seemed to appreciate it and she shared it with her dad. While talking on the back stoop, she asked me, "Do you do any creative writing, like fiction or poetry?" That caused me to pause. All I do is observe and share my thoughts. I'm more of a reporter than an artist. Perhaps I could go back through all my writing and mine out sincere moments of revelation and amazement. I tend to live vicariously always on the fringe looking in. I don't know how to trust enough to share raw emotion, but I'm glad to know there are people who can.